Ever since explorers revealed the existence of their jungle-clad ruins in the 1840s, the ‘lost’ civilization of the Maya has been a cause of astonishment and speculation. For while Europe was struggling through the ‘Dark Ages’, Maya peoples were enjoying the apogée of their civilization in seemingly the most unlikely of places – the rainforests of Central America.
With organisational skills that can only be the product of a highly sophisticated society, the Maya created magnificent cities replete with elegant palaces, mighty temples and broad plazas studded with carved stelae and altars. They were great mathematicians and astronomers who conceived one of the most complex and accurate calendars the world has known. They also devised an elaborate and beautiful system of hieroglyphic writing, the only fully-developed written language in the pre-Columbian Americas. Maya art was complex and loaded with arcane symbolism, yet to our sensibilities it appears remarkably naturalistic and accessible.
All this was achieved by a people still technically in the Stone Age and who, despite many colourful theories to the contrary, developed in complete isolation from the civilizations of the ‘Old World’, of Europe and Asia.
Until some forty years ago a powerful mystique had grown up about the Maya. They were thought to have been a peaceable society of independent cities governed by priest-kings who devoted their days to astronomy and divination on behalf of their people. Today, however, this image has been dramatically changed by the continuing discoveries of archaeologists and by one of the great investigative triumphs of the century, the decipherment of Maya writing.
Visitors to the great Maya cities can learn of their changing fortunes over almost a thousand years in extraordinary detail. We now know the history of the royal families and can also understand the essentials of Maya religious beliefs and how Maya rulers saw themselves, like Egyptian pharaohs, as god-kings on earth whose elaborate rituals of blood-letting and sacrifice sustained the Maya world.
In the tenth century ad the heartland of Maya civilization in the tropical forests collapsed. Construction in the great cities ceased, temples and palaces were invaded by the jungle. It now seems that environmental disaster – land clearance under population pressure exacerbated by severe droughts – was a major factor.
But this was not quite the end, as new cities emerged in other areas, such as Uxmal and Chichén Itzá in the north of the Yucatán peninsula, which continued in much reduced form until extirpation by Conquistadores and missionaries in the sixteenth century.
Today there are some six million speakers of Maya languages, the largest group of native Americans north of Panama. They reveal a distinctive living culture, an intriguing mixture of both ancient beliefs and practices adopted since the Spanish conquest.
Martin Randall Travel is a member of the Latin American Travel Association – the authoritative voice in the UK for Latin American Travel and Tourism.
Cancún. Fly at c. 10.45am from London Gatwick direct to Cancún with British Airways, arriving in time for a light dinner. Those not taking our flights can check in from 4.00pm today. Overnight Cancún.
Ek’ Balam, Chichén Itzá. The little-visited site of Ek’ Balam is known for its defensive walls and well-preserved stucco sculpture. Situated in the Northern Lowlands, Chichén Itzá was the New Rome of the Maya world, where Maya culture was reborn in a different guise that was to last until the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th cent. Prominent among the constructions here is El Castillo pyramid, simple in appearance but functioning as a complex Maya calendar. See also the great ball court, El Caracól observatory and the sacred well. First of two nights in Mérida.
Mérida. Morning walk through the colonial centre including the cathedral and main square. The 19th cent. Palacio del Gobierno houses impressive murals by local artist Fernando Castro Pacheco depicting the violent struggle of the Maya against the Spanish. The new Museum of the Maya World contains c. 500 artefacts including sculpture, jewellery and ceramics. Free afternoon.
Uxmal, Campeche. Uxmal arose towards the end of lowland Maya civilization but was abandoned around ad 900. Here are to be found some of the most beautiful of Maya buildings, distinguished by their long and low proportions and characterised by elaborate stone mosaics on the façades. Continue to Kabah, with its eccentric Palace of the Masks. The night is spent in the charming colonial city of Campeche, with historic defences.
Edzná, Palenque. Little visited Edzná has the longest building in the Maya world and an impressive five-story pyramid. Drive south to Palenque (c. 8 hours including stops) for the first of three nights.
Palenque. Enjoying a magnificent location in the jungle of the foothills of Chiapas, Palenque rose to a dominant position through war and marriage alliances in the Late Classic period, ad 600 to 800. The sculpture found here is particularly outstanding. The largest structure, the Temple of the Inscriptions, housed the spectacular tomb of the great ruler Pacal.
Bonampak. The small site of Bonampak has remarkably well-preserved murals with graphic scenes of royal rituals, a savage battle and sacrifice of the captives.
Most of the day is occupied with driving from Mexico into Guatemala (c. 7 hours), the destination being the small town of Flores on the shores of Lake Petén Itzá. Stop here for refreshments before continuing to the hotel.
Yaxhá. In the Petén jungle of the Guatemalan lowlands the huge city of Yaxhá is surrounded by lakes and teeming with wildlife. Its forty stelae and nine pyramids date from the Preclassic and Classic era.
Tikal. Even bigger than Yaxhá, Tikal was a thriving metropolis of maybe 100,000 at its height. Its massive pyramid-temples still pierce the forest canopy making it architecturally the grandest of all Maya cities. One of the great powers of the Maya world, its changing fortunes over almost a thousand years can be followed in the hieroglyphs. Progressive clearance and excavation have revealed an intricate pattern of urban planning.
Guatemala City, Panajachel. Early morning flight to Guatemala City to visit the Archaeological Museum, a major collection of Maya art and artefacts. From here drive west to Panajachel, splendidly situated on the shores of Lake Atitlán. First of three nights in Panajachel.
Santiago de Atitlán. Early morning boat trip across this spectacular lake (which is surrounded by volcanoes) to the traditional Maya town of Santiago de Atitlán. Here the curious wooden effigy of Maximón is still worshipped and can be visited in his ‘house’.
Chichicastenango. Optional morning excursion to Chichicastenango, with its centuries-old, colourful market. The wide range of wares reflect the local traditions of weaving and woodcarving. An interesting mix of Maya and Catholic worship takes place in the church of Santo Tomás.
Iximché, Antigua Guatemala. Iximché is an excellent example of a Late Postclassic site, established c. 1470 with three plazas, temples, palaces and ball courts, and with defences which were stormed by the Spanish under Pedro de Alvarado in 1524. Continue to Antigua, the splendid, colonial capital of Guatemala for the first of two nights.
Antigua Guatemala. Though shattered by earthquakes in 1773, much of Antigua’s old fabric survives. See colonial architecture of great charm and impressive Baroque churches, some of which still remain in picturesque ruin.
Antigua Guatemala. Drive to Guatemala City for an early afternoon flight to Miami. Change planes here for an overnight flight to London.
Arrive at London Heathrow at c. 10.30am. Please note this tour departs from London Gatwick and returns to Heathrow.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £6,120 or £5,540 without flights on days 1 and 16. Single occupancy: £6,700 or £6,120 without flights on days 1 and 16.
Included: air travel (economy class) from London to Cancún with British Airways (Boeing 777), from Guatemala City to Miami and Miami to London with American Airlines (Boeing 737 and 777); domestic flight within Guatemala with Aviateca (ATR 42-600); transport by private coach; accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 14 dinners and 10 lunches (including 1 picnic); beer, water, soft drinks and coffee at lunch plus wine at dinner; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer, tour manager and local guides.
JW Marriott, Cancún: a modern, comfortable, resort hotel. Hotel Gran Real Yucatán, Mérida: a modern hotel in a converted 19th cent. house, centrally located. Hotel Plaza Campeche, Campeche: a functional and comfortable hotel in a colonial building. Hotel Villa Mercedes, Palenque: is a well-maintained hotel near the site. Hotel Villa Maya, Flores: low rise bungalows next to a lake and surrounded by jungle. Hotel Atitlán, Panajachel: located on the shores of the lake with beautiful gardens and views. Hotel Casa Santo Domingo Antigua: a beautifully restored, colonial hotel. All hotels are locally rated as 4 or 5 star. Single rooms are doubles for single use throughout.
Though the itinerary has been planned to be less strenuous than most tours to the region, it must be stressed that the tour is nevertheless quite taxing, with some long drives, some early starts and frequent changes of hotel. Many of the archaeological sites are vast, located in humid jungle and on rough ground. The tour should not be undertaken by anyone who has the slightest problem with everyday walking and stair-climbing, or who is not sure-footed. Average distance by coach per day: 89 miles.
Between 14 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.fco.gov.uk.
'This is the best holiday I have ever taken. All elements have been carefully considered and it cannot be improved on the strength of my satisfaction.'
'Norman was very knowledgeable and seemed tireless. I can't imagine you culd have got better.'
'Professor Hammond was extremely well informed, imparted his knowledge beautifully and with perfect articulation and addressed all questions and queries patiently and with good humour.'
'This was an excellent and interesting trip, enhanced by Norman, Alberto [Tour Manager] and the guides.'